What’s burning inside of you?
Light that fire!
Happy writing x
What’s burning inside of you?
Light that fire!
Happy writing x
Writing character deaths is a tricky task that many writers grapple with. Due to the huge prevalence of death in fiction, it has increasingly become a theme writers feel they have to include.
Most notably, literature that gets showered in accolades often includes the tragic deaths of all manner of loveable characters. Parental figures, faithful pets and best friends are the most common victims.
Awards given to books aimed at younger audiences, such as the Newbery Medal and Michael L. Printz award, often seem to seek out the most poignant, shocking deaths that catapult protagonists into maturity.
Books like Bridge To Terabithia and Looking For Alaska are famed for cutting adolescent romance short with sudden death, while Charlotte’s Web made audiences weep over a dying spider.
Gordon Korman, in No More Dead Dogs, jokes that:
The dog always dies. Go to the library and pick out a book with an award sticker and a dog on the cover. Trust me, that dog is going down.”
All of this begs a few questions. Has death in fiction become a cheap gimmick, included with the sole intention of nabbing awards? Do writers have to include death for their story to have emotional depth?
Whatever the answer to these questions, it’s undeniable that death is a theme with enduring relevance. As long as you take steps to ensure character deaths are written with care, with the grand scheme of your narrative always in mind, its presence in your writing won’t be cheap.
Here are a few pointers for dealing with death in your fiction.
An important step in understanding death in fiction is pondering its significance to audiences, and considering why it’s one of the most frequently portrayed themes. Human mortality has been reflected upon since the birth of literature, often elevating writing and provoking thought among readers about the nature of life.
Modern writers often see death as a theme of universal value, the ultimate existential dilemma. Without fail, the theme can rouse feelings of anxiety and fear, while also potentially opening up avenues to self-discovery and coming-of-age. Additionally, death has great symbolic importance as part of the natural cycle of birth and decay.
With all this to consider, it’s easy to see why death often wins writers’ awards. But it’s important to be honest with yourself as a writer, and to consider what the idea of death means in the unique context of your story. It’s too metaphysical and powerful a theme to simply shoehorn into a narrative.
This brings us to our next piece of advice: ensuring there are valid reasons for including character deaths in your story.
There are many reasons why death can be important to a story, and many ways it can add depth to situations. Having specific reasons for including death in your story can help you craft significant death scenes effectively.
Let’s take a look at some of the reasons you might incorporate a character death into your story.
The death of characters can seriously raise the stakes. It throws the characters into a state of immediacy, where danger is imminent and the audience becomes quickly invested due to escalating tension.
For example, in the Harry Potter series, the deaths of major mentor figures Sirius Black and Professor Dumbledore signalled the fact that Harry was on his own, left to face an increasingly deadly foe without the safety of his childhood tethers.
Incorporating death can also create an atmosphere of dread and mystery. In some instances, it can clearly communicate the wickedness of an antagonist.
A brief glance at lists of top villains in literature demonstrates how compelling villains often leave a bloody trail in their wake, which adds to their menacing personas – especially when their true identities are not immediately known but the deaths they cause pack a narrative punch.
If grief, guilt, horror and other feelings associated with death are conveyed successfully, the audience will have a strong emotional response. A great way of learning how to create a lasting emotional impression is to look for what others consider great death scenes.
What pulls on heartstrings will always be quite a subjective and varied affair, but steering clear of over-the-top melodrama will be your best bet.
The Guardian‘s article on the greatest death scenes in literature displays that readers and writers alike are captivated by scenes which play on universal human emotions such as desperation, denial and existential fatigue. Other lists of great deaths show how death scenes accompanied by graphic detail can also often trigger a visceral response, especially when paired with the emotional trauma of characters.
Study what you find striking in death scenes. What makes your heart hurt or beat faster? Additionally, look for what you find lacklustre or unconvincing.
Have you ever read a hokey death scene where a parent dies because the author doesn’t know what to do with them, or scenes where crying cancer patients are milked for all their dramatic worth?
Be careful not to venture into the realm of purple prose. Think clearly about what strong feelings you wish to trigger in your audience and learn the art of subtlety.
Death can be a motivating factor for growth or self-discovery. It can even be an impetus for characters to shift their habits and lifestyle, which can pose interesting challenges and drive the story.
In Stephen King’s short story The Body, death has a heavy impact on the coming-of-age of the main character, Gordie. He is unable to properly grapple with his older brother’s death, but finds himself on a quest to find the body of a dead neighbourhood boy – a journey that pushes him into the realm of adulthood as he slowly understands the bleak aspects of life.
A focus on death can also change the way audiences view historical events, and can make us reflect over existential questions.
The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki prompted fierce debate over whether the event was justified. John Hersey’s famed non-fiction book Hiroshima took a human interest angle that detailed the graphic death and injuries of bombing victims in stark, factual language.
The book triggered stronger discussion over the horror of the event, the hopelessness of war, and life in the nuclear age.
George R. R. Martin, author of the A Song of Ice and Fire series, is famous for the fact that any one of his characters – no matter how important – can die. He states:
I’ve been killing characters my entire career. Maybe I’m just a bloody-minded bastard, I don’t know, [but] when my characters are in danger, I want you to be afraid to turn the page [and to do that] you need to show right from the beginning that you’re playing for keeps.”
The unpredictability attached to Martin’s character deaths enlivens his stories. But being unpredictable doesn’t mean writing death scenes purely to shock or pull cheaply on heartstrings.
Instead, it means playing with audience expectations, while remaining true to your characterisation and the intent of your overall story.
Think about whether or not there are predictable patterns in your writing, whether you always kill off characters due to aimlessness in your plot, or whether you lean on killing a certain type of character, such as a family member.
Also ponder over the predictability of your prose. Do you lean on cliched phrases and flowery descriptions to get an emotional point across? Perhaps incorporating some of these tips on how to add realistic details to death scenes can make your scenes seem unique and tangible.
One of the greatest joys of reading is not knowing what to expect, and feeling as if the outcome is not only surprising but also credible. Conversely, it can also be satisfying if the plot goes to a place you do expect, but is dealt with in a fresh and interesting way.
Death scenes we do expect can become infinitely more valuable if the aftermath and the way characters react bring us to new places.
For instance, in Donna Tartt’s acclaimed novel The Secret History, the murder of a main character is revealed in the first few sentences. Although we know death is coming, we become enraptured by the well-drawn characterisation of the doomed murderers and the friend they will inevitably kill.
In this way, our expectation of death makes everything that comes before it more engaging, as the author delves into the psychosis of characters and makes us guess what will push them over the edge. This type of emotional tension makes death fresher, as it gains a more foreboding presence.
When the death scene comes, we become gripped with greater emotional tension as we ponder over what will happen next. The initial questions are simple. Will they be caught? How will they talk their way out of this?
What follows is what makes the novel special, as the the author interweaves feelings of intense moral conflict and unexpected grief to prompt characters to behave in erratic and passionate ways.
This effectively demonstrates the full storytelling strength of death as a theme, when it’s used in a way that is both predictable but powerful.
Judges in the writing industry often seek the sorrow and existential angst that death brings. It’s no wonder that many writers gravitate towards this concept, trying to portray it in ways nobody has before.
However, as a writer, it’s important to ask yourself if you’re merely killing a character because you don’t know how else to elevate your story. By including character deaths, are you being true to your vision?
Keep in mind the significance of death scenes, while also learning death-free ways to deal with situations.
Aristotle states that to master the art of tragedy, one must elicit feelings of both horror and pity. These strong feelings don’t always require the presence of death and maudlin depictions of grief.
Lisa Genova’s Still Alice is famously heartbreaking but features no death; instead, feelings of pity and sadness are triggered from something as complex and emotionally challenging as the deterioration of one’s mind, and by extension, sense of self.
The Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis also foregoes death for something that strikes a different, painful chord. It tells the story of a man trapped in overwhelming and constant failure, as he chases his dream of creative success.
The feelings of hopelessness, futility, fear, anxiety, and introspection tackled in these stories are varied and infinitely worth exploring.
Remember that tragedy, and any other situation with emotional depth, doesn’t always require a body count. Happy writing!
Henry Miller (26 December 1891 – 7 June 1980) was a prolific writer and painter. In 1932-1933, while working on what would become his first published novel, Tropic of Cancer, Miller devised and adhered to a stringent daily routine to propel his writing. Among it was this list of eleven commandments, found in Henry Miller on Writing:
- Work on one thing at a time until finished.
- Start no more new books, add no more new material to ‘Black Spring.’
- Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
- Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
- When you can’t create you can work.
- Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
- Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
- Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.
- Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
- Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
- Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.
Under a part titled Daily Program, his routine also featured the following wonderful blueprint for productivity, inspiration, and mental health:
If groggy, type notes and allocate, as stimulus.
If in fine fettle, write.
Work on section in hand, following plan of section scrupulously. No intrusions, no diversions. Write to finish one section at a time, for good and all.
See friends. Read in cafés.
Explore unfamiliar sections — on foot if wet, on bicycle if dry.
Write, if in mood, but only on Minor program.
Paint if empty or tired.
Make Notes. Make Charts, Plans. Make corrections of MS.
Note: Allow sufficient time during daylight to make an occasional visit to museums or an occasional sketch or an occasional bike ride. Sketch in cafés and trains and streets. Cut the movies! Library for references once a week.
Wouldn’t it be great to add a little of his routine to yours, for a bit of daily inspiration!
Ahh, romance. Not only is it a massively popular genre of its own, it’s also an extremely common element in countless other genres and categories – from literary fiction right through to sci-fi, fantasy and young adult fiction. However, writing romantic relationships isn’t easy. Just because it’s done often, doesn’t mean it’s always done right.
If you’ve ever struggled to write romantic elements, don’t worry, because you definitely aren’t alone. Many authors have trouble crafting authentic relationships between their characters. Even the most seasoned writers are at risk of falling prey to clichés, stereotypical character tropes, and love stories that don’t quite ring true…
So whether you’re writing a romance novel or a book in any other genre that contains elements of romance, read on for five key things to avoid when writing romantic relationships.
Conflict and tension are the elements that keep all stories moving. They draw readers in, get them invested in the story and the characters, and keep them turning pages.
This is no different when it comes to writing romantic relationships. The build-up of tension, and even outright initial conflict, between two people who are attracted to each other is a huge part of what many readers love about romance.
However, there are actually two potential mistakes to be made here:
In the first instance, you might be writing a story in which there’s a great amount of plot-pushing conflict and sizzling tension between your two romantically inclined characters. But in putting so much effort into the romantic conflict and tension, you might have forgotten to inject these elements anywhere else in the story.
Now, this can be more easily forgivable if you’re writing strictly within the romance genre. After all, the relationship, its development and all its ups and downs are what romance readers are here for. But do keep in mind that there needs to be other story elements as well, and that they should involve some measure of conflict to keep the story moving.
If you’re writing romantic relationships within genres other than romance, however, you need to be especially careful to keep up the conflict and tension in your story’s other areas.
Always remember which genre you’re primarily writing in, and who your target market is.
If you’re writing fantasy or one of its subgenres, for example, by all means weave a romantic element throughout. But keep in mind that the majority of your conflict and tension should come from the other aspects of your story, such as magic, politics or a character’s quest.
(If you find yourself focusing more and more on the romantic aspects of your writing to the detriment of other plot points, perhaps it’s time to reconsider which genre you really want to be writing in after all!)
The second potential mistake to be made is building up to the climactic point in which two characters finally end up together – and then instantly forgetting about conflict and tension altogether.
It’s all well and good to get caught up in developing the build-up to a romantic relationship; as we said before, that’s a favourite aspect of romance for many readers. However, it’s important to keep that all-important conflict and tension running through your story even after your characters get together.
Remember that in real life, no relationship is perfect. No fictional relationship should be perfect, either.
And even if your characters are pretty damn happy now they’re together, there still has to be some type of conflict throughout the story that will affect them – both individually and as a couple.
Stereotypical characters are found in every genre and style of book. But unfortunately, they’re a little more likely to appear wherever romance is involved.
You’ve no doubt come across some pretty unbelieveable, cringeworthy or two-dimensional characters in a romance novel, romantic comedy movie, or any other story with romantic elements.
Whether it’s the broody, sulking man with a troubled past and a soft heart, the manic pixie dream girl, or simply a ‘Mary Sue’-style character, there are countless stereotypes and overdone character tropes perpetuated through romance in literature.
Luckily, there’s an easy way to avoid this. You just need to keep the following in mind at all times:
When writing romantic relationships, each character needs to be developed individually as well as in terms of their relationship.
Crafting believable characters is one of the most important aspects of fiction writing. If you can’t make each character authentic on their own, the relationship they share won’t be authentic either.
To create great romantic relationships, you first need to create great individual characters. They need to be flawed, complex and real in order to resonate with readers. So none of these perfect cookie-cutter characters who lack any real substance, or who exist primarily for the sake of a romantic story element.
If you develop fully rounded, engaging and believable characters, it’s much easier to develop fully rounded, engaging and believable relationships between them. Simple.
This is, of course, one of the biggest no-nos when writing romantic relationships. ‘Instalove’ is one of the most common mistakes to avoid when writing YA fiction, and it’s no different when it comes to writing for adults.
In real life, nobody meets (or even just looks at) someone for the first time and immediately falls in love. Yes, there can be instant attraction – but this shouldn’t be confused with instant love.
Even if your romantic relationship is just a subplot in your story, that’s no excuse for it not to be developed properly. And besides, doesn’t establishing the romance instantly take all the fun, tension and anticipation out of the build-up we talked about above.
No matter which genre you write in, your readers want to go on a journey with your characters, and this includes the building of their relationships.
There’s no faster way to make readers’ eyes roll than two characters falling instantly in love without any real interaction or meaningful connection. So be sure to avoid this trope at all costs.
When writing romantic relationships in your novels, it’s extremely important to distinguish between what’s healthy in a relationship, and what’s harmful.
We’re not saying every relationship you write has to be a perfectly healthy and happy one. (See the notes on conflict and tension above!) We’re simply saying that you need to be aware when you’re writing romantic elements that are actually harmful, and that you need to avoid romanticising these elements at all costs.
So what do we mean when we refer to ‘harmful’ relationship elements? Basically, we’re talking about any aspects of a relationship that are portrayed as ‘romantic’ or even an expression of ‘true love’, but are actually unhealthy or even abusive.
Think about some of the romance stories portrayed in books, films and TV today. How many emotionally, verbally or even physically abusive characters are out there masquerading as romantic ‘heroes’? How many unhealthy relationship aspects and negative character traits have been passed off as ‘sexy’ or ‘desirable’? (Yes, Fifty Shades of Grey, we’re looking at you.)
Common character traits along these lines include:
Again, we’re not saying you can’t create characters who have these traits, or that you can’t write about an abusive or toxic relationship.
We’re saying that if you do, you need to avoid romanticising those aspects, and always make it clear that this is not what a normal, healthy relationship actually looks like.
If any element of fiction is in the most danger of being rife with clichés, it has to be romance.
Just like the stereotypical character tropes we talked about above, the language and descriptions you use when writing romantic relationships are at risk of falling into clichéd territory.
Whether you’re writing sex scenes, or simply describing the way characters see each other or feel when they’re around each other, there’s a lot of language that tends to be overused in romance writing. This includes things like:
Try to think outside the box a little when it comes to describing your characters’ feelings. What fresh or unusual imagery can you use to evoke the nuances of their relationship? How can you tie this imagery in with who they are as a character?
Experiment with words, but also remember that sometimes keeping things simple can be the most effective way of writing romantic relationships.
If you aren’t born knowing the rules, learn them! – Truman Capote
“Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before.”
Among the greatest commencement addresses of all time is an extraordinary speech beloved author Neil Gaiman delivered in May of 2012 at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts.
So potent and enlivening was his advice on courage and the creative life that the speech was adapted into Make Good Art – a gem of a book. Here is his advice:
When things get tough, this is what you should do: Make good art. I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician — make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by a mutated boa constrictor — make good art. IRS on your trail — make good art. Cat exploded — make good art. Someone on the Internet thinks what you’re doing is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before — make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, eventually time will take the sting away, and that doesn’t even matter. Do what only you can do best: Make good art. Make it on the bad days, make it on the good days, too.”
A wise woman once said, “If you are not making mistakes, you’re not taking enough risks.” Gaiman articulates the same sentiment with his own brand of exquisite eloquence:
I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.
Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something.
So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.
Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it.
Make your mistakes, next year and forever.”
This week’s writing prompt, although for everyone, is especially useful for those who are working on a bigger project – perhaps a novel or novella. The problem with writing a bigger work is that generally, there’s not much ‘reward’ in terms of recognition and publication throughout what is usually a long process. Most journals don’t accept novel excerpts as submissions, and so unless you’re working on multiple short stories as well as your novel, you won’t be published until *fingers crossed* your novel hits the shelves.
So here’s something for you to try:
Get yourself in the writing zone with your favourite tipple and a notepad. Draw a quick mind map of the main characters and the ‘support cast’ associated with them in your current work. Then take a closer look at one of these secondary characters.
The idea is to choose someone who is quietly relevant to your story – perhaps it is the actions of this character that made your protagonist act in a certain way or choose a certain path? It could be your lead man’s mother? Or an old school friend? Think about their backstory.
This story could be set years before the events in your novel take place, like the protagonist’s childhood, or the childhood of their parents, or a lover… Choose a character whose backstory impacts the narrative in a subtle way. This is your opportunity to explore events and characters that you love but don’t have room for in your current work.
Then write a short story based on whatever you come up with. This allows you to create something that can stand alone from your novel, yet benefit it at the same time. At best, you have a short story that you’re able to submit to literary journals for consideration, and at worst, you’ve built onto the backstory of your novel, and enriched one of its support characters or settings by getting to know them better.